McALLEN, Texas - The former mayor and bookkeeper of the tiny city of La Grulla pleaded innocent Friday to charges they used federal grant money to pay for tens of thousands of dollars in psychic consultations.
Diana Cortez, the former mayor, and Sandra Lopez, the former bookkeeper, stood silently in casual street clothes as public defender Norman Mcinnis waived a reading of the indictment and entered innocent pleas.
"She understands what she's accused of," Mcinnis said. "She doesn't want the indictment read in court."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Dorina Ramos released both women on $35,000 personal recognizance bonds pending an October trial.
The indictment unsealed Tuesday alleges Cortez, 48, and Lopez, 45, withdrew $53,700 between May 2002 and May 2003 to pay for consultations that included the use of tarot cards.
Each faces one charge of embezzlement and one charge of theft from a program receiving federal funds, and aiding and abetting. The combined charges carry up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Cortez was mayor from May 2001 to May 2003; Lopez was bookkeeper during her administration, responsible for accounts receivable.
During that year, the city received about $410,000 in grants through the federal department of Housing and Urban Development's Com-munity Development Block Grant program.
The grants were meant to foster home ownership, community development, and affordable housing for the city, which has about 400 families with a median income of about $16,400. La Grulla is surrounded by a growing number of colonias, or unplanned settlements, that draw on city services.
Prosecutors say the federal money went into the city's general fund and was tapped for the psychic payments.
According to the Aug. 12 grand jury indictment, Cortez authorized 23 checks between $1,000 and $3,500 to a man named Cesar Macias as well as to fictional businesses including "Macias Contrac-tor," "Macias Machinery & Supply Company Contrac-tor," and "Macias Equipment Company."
The indictment was unsealed Tuesday and the two were arrested on bench warrants.
"I think the people knew and that this is not news to them, it is news only in terms of seeing it publicized," said La Grulla Mayor Alejandro Solis. "In a way, it was kind of sad and it was kind of embarrassing."
Mexican border communities are sprinkled with shops for folk healers, known as curanderas, many of whom advertise psychic services such as tarot card readings.
Solis said he did not know Cesar Macias and had never heard of the businesses.
Prosecutors would not elaborate on why the women said they were seeking psychic aide.
"These people are presumed innocent and we can't go beyond what's in the public record," U.S. Attorney's office spokeswoman Nancy Herrera said.